It’s All About the Big Picture
In my early twenties, I spent several years as an assistant trainer at Quarter Horse show barns.
I soon realized that training a successful Western show horse has little to do with bringing out the best in every horse. Instead, it has everything to do with presenting a picture the judge wants to see: a saddle with lots of silver, the horse’s mane neatly banded, the rider wearing the right kind of chaps. But much more important than tack, clothes, or grooming fashions is something else: the horse has to look and move a certain way to begin with. If he does not, he will never win. If he is not what the judge is looking for, all the silver conchos plus all the training in the world won’t earn him any ribbons, points, or money. A Western pleasure or all-around prospect needs to be born with a long, low-set neck and move with minimal knee or hock action. Otherwise, there is little point in training him at all.
I am not talking about the abusive practices trainers can use to get Western Pleasure horses to drop their heads and crawl along the rail. The drugs and draw reins belong to a separate story. I am talking about surviving in a world where a horse’s show record determines his value. In that world, horses are divided into those who are talented, which makes them worth training, and those considered unworthy. It’s a tough place for horses. It’s a tough place for trainers. I never felt at home there, which is why I eventually left it.
Out on my own, I fell back in love with dressage, both with the training principles and the competitive sport, which, in New Mexico during the 1990s, seemed so much more inclusive so much more welcoming than the Quarter Horse shows. Back then, everyone, amateur or professional, rode the kind of horses I rode: Quarter Horses, Morgans, Arabians, off the track Thoroughbreds. I enjoyed competing in those days. But between then and now, the sport of dressage has changed drastically in the US, even here in New Mexico. Most horses at recognized shows are now Warmbloods, bred for generations to be exactly what the dressage judge wants to see enter at A.These horses are born with a huge overstep at the walk and trot. They are born with an arched neck. They are born with powerful, elastic movement.
Yes, I know. Correct training can develop any horse’s topline. Correct training can make any horse’s steps more rhythmic, more elastic - to a point. But all the correct training in the world can’t make a 15 hand Quarter Horse move or look like a 17-hand Hanoverian.
Yes, I know. A talented horse who looks and moves the part still needs correct training. Talent needs to be developed. Even a talented horse can be ruined through incorrect training and training shortcuts. It happens all the time. But if you are a competent professional dressage trainer whose career depends on high scores, wouldn’t you rather train a horse who has the potential to earn those high scores than a horse who, even with correct work, lacks that potential?
Doing well at a dressage show today means something similar to doing well at a Quarter horse shows used to mean in the 1990s, and probably still does. It’s all about the picture the judge wants to see: neat button braids, jeweled brow bands, white gloves. But more important than that is a horse who moves with big, elastic steps, a horse with spring-loaded hind feet. Horses who don’t look or move like that are becoming a rare sight, even at the lower levels.
I keep hearing that this is a good thing. I keep hearing that “The quality of the horses at our dressage shows has improved so much!”
I can't help asking myself: Is this really a good thing for the horse world? Is this really a good thing for all horses? Horses bred for dressage do get higher dressage scores than horses bred for other purposes, or for no specific purpose. Of course they do, just like horses bred to win Western Pleasure classes usually do what they're born to do. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. But dressage is unique in the world of competitive equestrian sports because it is so much more more than that sport. It’s a solid basis of good training for any horse. It’s a tradition of horsemanship that builds happy, long-term horse-rider partnerships. It benefits all horses - not just those with the huge overstep and uphill canter. Not just those who are capable of scoring well in competition.
I still call myself a dressage trainer, though I continue to work with horses that are not traditional dressage horses. I still believe, more than ever, that dressage is good for all horses. My horses become better horses through dressage - more balanced, sounder, stronger, more responsive, happier. I get positive feedback from their owners. My barn is always full. And yet, I would never dream of taking the horses I work with today to a recognized dressage show. I would be laughed out of the ring.
My clients appreciate what I do for them and their horses. Competition is not a huge focus in my program. I earn a decent living in spite of that. But most professional dressage trainers are not as fortunate.
Just like their counterparts in the Western world, Dressage trainers now have to survive in aworld that divides horses into those worth training and those who are not. Professionals who want to be successful focus more and more on training horses who conform to the picture the judge wants to see. I can’t blame them, but this means that many horses who could benefit from correct dressage training will never get it. And this makes me sad.